February 28, 2020

Six years on, Maidan investigation may finally be rebooted


KYIV – On February 20 Ukraine marked the sixth anniversary of the killing of scores of participants in the Euro-Maidan in central Kyiv – the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred as they have become known. It saw renewed expressions of anger and frustration about the failure to bring the perpetrators to justice and an intensification of recriminations about the handling of the case both before and under the current administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Mr. Zelenskyy, who inherited this sensitive issue from the previous president, Petro Poroshenko, blames the lack of progress on flaws in the judicial system and alleged lack of political will on the part of his predecessors. On February 11, he told Interfax-Ukraine that “the most complicated case in our country is the Maidan.”

Mr. Zelenskyy acknowledged that evidence has been lost and the scene of the crime tampered with. For the moment he could still not say when those who gave the orders would be found, but gave assurances that the matter is being “dealt with faster than several years before” and that “we are doing the utmost” to complete the investigations.

In fact, in the second half of November 2019, President Zelenskyy personally intervened with the Verkhovna Rada to prevent delays and inaction that lawyers representing the Heavenly Hundred feared would cause the investigation’s collapse. Responding to their urgent appeal, he managed to persuade national deputies to expedite the amendment of laws streamlining the work of the State Bureau of Investig­ation that would ensure the transfer by January 11 to the SBI of the Maidan cases under investigation and secure their continuity.

The pressure on the Zelenskyy administration to produce results has come not only from the relatives and lawyers of the victims, and concerned sections of society, but also increasingly from those challenging the generally accepted heroic and patriotic Ukrainian narrative about what occurred.

From the outset, Moscow had promoted its own fake conspiracy theories to undermine Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, and these were taken up in films shown in Israel, the Netherlands and elsewhere. On January 21, the conservative One America News Network broadcast a production featuring a former campaign adviser to Donald Trump called “The Ukrainian Hoax: Impeachment, Biden, Cash, and Mass Murder with guest host Michael Caputo.” This far-right U.S. TV channel in effect parroted Moscow’s narrative about the Maidan being a Western-inspired plot and thrust the tragic events in Kyiv into the center of the impeachment and election battles between the Republicans and the Democrats.

While dismissing these insinuations as Moscow’s doing, numerous Ukrainian commentators have nevertheless stressed that the lack of a complete picture of what happened on the Maidan on February 18-20, 2014, does not help matters. For some reason, after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych the new authorities in Kyiv did not make revealing the truth a priority. This inaction by the Poroshenko administration only invites questions and conjecture.

Not surprisingly, within Ukraine, former senior representatives of the Yanukovych administration who have returned to the country since President Zelenskyy took over have now taken the lead in challenging the official narrative about the Maidan. They are the ex-deputy chief of Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration, Andriy Portnov, and the ex-minister of justice, Olena Lukash. Attempts to detain the latter on charges of complicity in the murders have so far failed. Mr. Portnov and Ms. Lukash have been making frequent appearances on Ukrainian TV channels receptive to their line.

Two other recent developments also have impacted on the controversy surrounding the killings on the Maidan.

During the Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange last December, five Ukrainian Ministry of the Internal Affairs snipers suspected of killing protesters were released, apparently on the Kremlin’s request. Although there was considerable unease in some quarters that they had been handed over to the Russian side, others viewed it as Moscow’s tacit recognition that it had been behind the massacre. However, what has complicated matters even more is that two of the suspected snipers have subsequently returned from Russian-controlled areas of the Donbas and are challenging the Ukrainian authorities to be allowed to clear their names in the courts.

The other development is the appointment of Oleksandr Babikov, a lawyer formerly representing Mr. Yanukovych, as first deputy director of the recently revamped SBI. On January 11 it was confirmed that the SBI had formed a unit to investigate the Maidan cases, but there was outrage over ensuing reports that Mr. Babikov would head it.

Three days later, the provisional director of the SBI, Iryna Venediktova, met with relatives of the victims and their lawyers, telling them the issue had been “manipulated” by the press. She reassured them that the new unit is subordinated exclusively to the head of the SBI, and that Mr. Babikov had undergone special checks as to his suitability to be employed by the SBI.

On February 20, on the actual anniversary date, President Zelenskyy met with the relatives of the Heavenly Hundred. He told them that those who had been shot down were defenders of Ukraine’s independence and unity, and that they represent the country’s core values – “the main thing we have. That’s why I think they are heroes.”

Responding to complaints from relatives about the lack of progress in the investigation, he assured them that this case remains a priority and that “the perpetrators will be punished.” Notwithstanding how the investigation had been handled over the past six years, “we will not only support you comprehensively, but also complete this case. This is our key task,” he told them. “We did our best not to lose the details of this case and continue the investigation even after the reboot of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the leadership of the State Bureau of Investigation,” he added.

At the same meeting, Ms. Venediktova reaffirmed that, in January, prosecutors dealing with the Maidan cases had been transferred from the Prosecutor General’s Office to the SBI. The relevant unit has been transformed into the Maidan Affairs Office. A competition will be announced to select its head. It will be open, and the families of the Heavenly Hundred will be able to assign their representative to oversee the process.

Six years after the mass murders on the Maidan transformed it into a shrine of martyrdom, the passions and controversies surrounding those events have not abated and the desire for the truth remains as strong as ever. Under pressure both at home and from abroad, the Zelenskyy administration has had to publicly commit itself to restore the investigation.